Thursday, November 4, 2010

Prologue: Vasilissa the Proud

It seemed like nothing at the time: that was why I was cast out from my homeland, and why everything else came to pass. Great evils may be done and be forgiven because they were done in service of an end, but the great evils that are done without thought are unforgivable. If one notices that one has done wrong, it may be mended, but if one cannot see the wrong?

My name is Vasilissa, and I am the last queen of Hyperborea. I have been an exile, a madwoman, and many other things, as well. I have seen my land destroyed in the fires of Hell, and lived to see a spring that I feared would never come again.

My story starts, as all stories start, with the land. Hyperborea is a land of vast meadows, perilous mountains, and clear ice cold rivers. During the spring, the grass is cool and green, and it grows thicker than the most luxurious Persian carpet. The fall was mild and pleasant, with warm days and cool nights. Winter never touched us, except to dust the mountains with snow. And summer…oh, the summers sometimes lasted a hundred years, with each warm night more perfect than the last. The days were bright and golden, with the heat of the sun glinting off the rivers, and the leaves almost glowing green. The nights were warm, and we often slept under the stars instead of in our rooms in the palace. The ribbons of colored light streamed down from the north, and covered the entire sky with luminescence.

Much of what my land is like cannot be told here: there are no words in human language for the worlds beyond Man’s. To men, who could not enter our realm if they were not invited, the land was harsh, rocky, and bitterly cold. In the far north of their world, it was locked in almost perpetual winter, and the inhabitants had to scramble for a mere existence.

I often saw them, when I was young: peasants, working themselves into exhaustion to provide for their children, grubbing small dirty potatoes out of the ground.

I was merely curious about them when I was very young, but as I grew I came to despise them. The sight of their dirt-stained faces, even from a distance, disgusted me. My robes were always clean and bright, and suited to our warm climate, while they bundled themselves in rags and scraps.

Many of us, especially the younger ones, enjoyed playing tricks on them: tugging at their rags when they couldn’t see us, or hiding a sack of potatoes. Harmless, for the most part—not kind, but harmless. Most of us grew out of such pranks, and the peasants cursed us for a moment but considered us simply a part of the world.

But it is so easy, with mostly harmless things, to take them too far. A little slip of the tongue, meant in jest, becomes a knife in the heart of a friend. A little tear, left too long, becomes so large it ruins a gown. And a little trick, pushed too hard, destroys a man’s mind.

He was beautiful: a peasant boy newly grown to manhood, and hard of body from laboring in the fields. His hair was almost as golden as mine, and he could often be heard singing a tune as he worked. Many of my people would stop to watch and listen.

I was also young and beautiful, though I had been so for hundreds of years, and would be so for hundreds or thousands more. Perhaps it all went to my head; even now, I am not certain.

I became more and more daring in my trips into the world of man; I no longer bothered to hide myself, wore my most dazzling gowns, and sang without bothering to glamor it into the sound of bird song. My companions were amused at first, but as I dared more and more, their amusement ceased. Whispers began spreading.

One day I was walking down by the river, one of the few green spots for miles around. It was spring in the human world, and though the trees and grass were beginning to show green sprouts again, the air was still cold and the wind sharp. The young man had come to the river with a barrow, filling it with large smooth stones for the repair of a wall.

Even when my kind wear no disguise, we are not always easily seen. We are so much a part of the land that we can be indistinguishable from it. But I very much wanted to be seen.

I heard his voice before I saw him. He was singing a song that had no melody, apart from what he chose to give it at any given moment. It was tuneless, but not unpleasant. He came into view through the trees, and began loading the rocks into the barrow. For a moment, he did not notice me, until he saw my wavering reflecting in the water of the river.

His song stopped, and he slowly looked up. It must have been the first time he saw a Hyperborean fully; the look on his face was one of sheer astonishment. I let a smile play across my lips, and turned back through the woods, throwing him a glance over my shoulder. He looked hesitant to follow, but when the first notes of my song reached his ears, he stepped forward without hesitation.

My people have the gift of words: men call it magic, but we have no such term. I wove my words and will into the song, calling him ever forward, and deepening his enchantment with my beauty.

In an hour’s time, we had come to the stone archway that was the gate into my home; I quickly spoke the words to open the gate, and the warm air of my realm poured through the gate. I could feel the warm Hyperborean sun, and almost taste the juice of the apples ripening on the trees in the orchard that stood near the gate.

I looked back to see what effect the breath of summer had on the young man. The breeze from the orchard ruffled his hair, and I saw his nostrils flare to catch the scent, like a horse near fresh water. His eyes were wide, and full of the light of the summer sun.

I stepped through the gate, continuing my song, calling him forward. He paused, glancing over his shoulder to the familiar woods he had come from. I am sure that he had heard the stories all of his life: men and women lured into the Other Realm, and disappearing forever. Such things had not happened in a very long time; but it had happened a few times, and the stories of old women have carried a kernel of the truth down through the years.

My words wove into the song again, singing of warm nights, sun-ripened fruit ready for the plucking, and a summer that lasted a lifetime. He stepped forward again, slowly at first, but then moving more surely until both feet were over the border. He turned his face to look up at the sun that now shone warmly on his face, bringing color to his wind-nipped cheeks.

He turned to me, as if seeing me for the first time. And truly, it must have been a sight, for I was not only beautiful, but aware of my own beauty. In the years since then, I have learned to appreciate the plain honest beauty of the peasant women of the villages, but when I was not so tired of my mirrors as I have become, I despised them for their sun-burned cheeks and roughly plaited hair. I stood before the young man in robes of silk and fine linen, in the deepest crimsons and blue, with gold braided into the garments and gleaming in the sunshine. My hair was like a golden curtain, falling around my knees and catching the light, and my skin as pale and smooth as milk.

He followed wherever I led, and we spent the summer in the orchards, listening to the song of the women who sing at the palace, and dancing under the stars at night when the curtains of color were drawn rippling across the sky.

Everywhere I went there were whispers; I could hear them talking about me, and my daring to lure my young man into Hyperborea, but I chose not to listen. I was not the first to do so, and he would have had no such life of ease with his own people. I even persuaded myself that I had done him a grand favor, bringing him to live in a land unsuited for him, a land not his own.

But slowly I began to tire of it. He was out of time, out of the rhythm by which our life moved. He began to long for a season other than summer; he only wanted to talk about snow, and the warmth of a fire in a cold cabin, and the winter festivals. He no longer appreciated the taste of the summer fruit, or the dances under the stars, or the songs of the palace.

Finally, I decided I no longer wished to see him. One day, while walking in the orchard, he began again to speak of the joys of winter, and while he was thus engrossed, I began weaving our path closer and closer to the gate. Then, with a quick push, he was through into the human world; without me at his side, he had no way back through into the Summer Realm. For a moment, he simply looked around in surprise, trying to understand what had happened; he could not see me, though I watched through the gate. Then the cold hit him; it was winter in the world of men, and he was still dressed for the summer of my country. He began to shiver and wrapped his arms around himself as if to keep the cold at bay.

He opened his mouth and began to call for me, but I was no longer listening; my attention had been caught by something in the woods beyond him. At first it was just a sound, much like any other sound in the forest. But I knew it at once, for every member of my race knows the sound by heart.

Scrape. Scrape. Brush. Crack. Scrape.

It is the sound of an iron mortar being driven rapidly through the trees, driven onward by a pestle the size of a tree.

The Baba Yaga was coming.

I turned quickly and strengthened the charms holding shut the gate between the worlds, and stepped back quickly so that the grandmother of all witches would not sense my presence. She had never been able to enter our world, but she had tried. She had roamed the forest for time beyond memory, perhaps since the beginning of the world. Some said she was the first wife of the first man, furious that she had been replaced after defying the god whom created her. I have no knowledge of such things, but she was a dark and twisted thing, purely malevolent, with no drop of kindness or compassion in her heart. Though she had never set foot in our realm, we knew that she might someday find the key to the door, and then all our happiness would be gone forever. The Baba Yaga brings nothing but death and madness.

I heard the scraping continue faintly through the shielding charm, and held my breath until all was silent again. When I was sure the Baba Yaga was no longer near, I ran quickly back to my own garden, and walked tending my flowers until my heart ceased to pound.

It is difficult to be worried for long in the heart of the Summer Realm, and soon my mind returned to its usual care-free state. But this was not to last: though I did not yet know it, everything had changed forever.


I woke the next morning, not quite at peace. I could still hear the scraping of the Yaga’s pestle against the ground, and I went to check the Gate again. The morning was as almost every morning in the Summer Realm: cool, green, the air lightly scented with night-blooming flowers, and dew dripping from every blade of grass.

No-one else was awake yet, and I moved silently through the gardens. I reached the Gate, and reassured myself that all was as it should be. I turned to go, and found my way barred by two tall figures. I knew them instantly, though I had never seen either one.

There were tales told about the Lawkeepers. They were rarely needed, but when one of our number did some evil or wrong, they would appear, and settle the matter. Their word was irrevocable. I do not know where they come from, or who sends them, but their power to enact their pronouncements has always been inescapable. They wore long robes of crimson, and wings of fire covered their eyes, though they did not seem to be blind.

They motioned to me to step through the Gate, and though I still feared the Baba Yaga, I obeyed instantly, wondering what had caused them to show themselves to me. I could not think of any of my people who had been wronged, and I myself had scarcely seen anyone during the summer season, much less caused harm.

My foot touched the cold snows of the human world, and I shivered, hoping that the Lawgivers would not take long. My favorite flower vine was blooming and I hoped to be back in my own garden soon to pluck a few of the best blossoms.

One of the Lawkeepers pointed a shining hand into the woods, and I followed his gesture. There, huddled under a tree, was a pathetic figure. Hunched and grey, it looked like a man, but only just. His arms and legs were gnarled and twisted by age, and there was no light of reason in his eyes. His beard hung low upon his chest, matted with mud, twigs, and his own saliva. His fingers were rough and the nails looked as though he’d been rooting in the ground for his food.

The eyes, I heard a whisper behind me, look into his eyes, Vasilissa.

I took a step closer and looked into the depths of his madness. And then I saw it. Deep down, past the years and the suffering he had endured, was the remnant of a man, a vigorous young man with eyes as blue as the cornflowers in my garden.

“But…” I found myself saying, “he was just a young man yesterday. Has so much time passed in one night of the Summer Realm?”

It is not the age which has done this to him, one of the Lawkeepers said, though several human years have indeed passed since you threw him out of Hyperborea. When you first found him, he was a man, suited to his own place and time. But after a long summer in the Summer Realm, he grew soft: it is not a place for the children of men to live, and you knew this. Yet you still tired of him, and cast him out in the middle of winter. More, when you heard the Grandmother of Witches coming, you did nothing to help him, but left him to her mercy, and she has none. She took him as her servant for three days, and his mind was shattered. His village could not withstand his ravings, and let him go back out to wander the woods, always looking for the Gate into the eternal warmth that he once knew.

I was repulsed; the handsome young man was entirely replaced by this creature of madness and filth.

This is your doing, daughter of the earth, it continued. You might have had compassion on him and restrained yourself to the pranks and tricks allowed to your kind. You might have had pity on him and returned him to his own world after a single night in yours. You might even have had enough thought to send him back during a more amenable season of his own place, that he might have had time to find his own place again. Barring even that, you might have offered him protection from the Yaga: such is the sort of thing all forms of life owe each other in the face of that which destroys. But you would not even lift a finger to do this.

I began to feel the biting cold of the human world sink into my bones, and stood stunned as they made their pronouncement.

For this, daughter of the earth, they intoned, raising their hands to lay the doom on me, you are banished from your home. You must learn to live by the labor of your hands, learn what it is to fear cold and starvation and death. You may find your home again when you have learned these things, but not before then. Feel cold, feel pain, feel hunger and want. Feel the hard earth beneath your feet.

At that moment, the cold sank deep into my bones, and I cried out in surprise, anger, and pain, dropping to my knees in the snow. When I looked up, they were gone, and I was alone with the madman.

Stumbling, I ran back toward the Gate, but I could not find it. In the clearing where I knew it had stood, I found only a single white tree, barren and dead.

I was overwhelmed by all of the sensations I had never known before: the pain of sharp sticks pricking my bare feet, the cold of winter, and the wetness of my gown where I had fallen to my knees in the snow. My mind whirled with confusion, but though I could no longer find the Gate, I could still feel the magic I knew deep within me. It came to me with no ease, ripping its way out of my soul, but I summoned it with every ounce of strength I had.

In a moment, I ran from the forest in a new form: a strong, powerful body, fast as the wind. I ran for as long as I could, leaving only a trail of hoof prints behind me.

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